Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Black and Bloomberg

It's a good thing that Cathie Black is a quick study, because this chancellor thing could become pretty messy if she doesn't get rapidly up to speed. But, as the NY Times reports, we really shouldn't be worried about this-because Black has hit the ground running: "Cathleen P. Black spent part of her first morning on the job as schools chancellor-designee on Tuesday reading to a classroom of first graders from a wooden rocking chair, a purple stuffed dog cradled in her lap. “It would be great if the class could give this dog a name,” she told them, before she started reading the book, “Caps for Sale,” a 1940 classic. “Sally!” one child called out. Done. If only all the tasks she faced were so easy."

Indeed, if only. Seriously, though, things are going to be tougher than her first day's tasks-a walk in the park compared to our first day teaching the, "Opportunity Class," in Washington Heights eons ago. But the Black appointment says something more instructive about the mayor's lame duck term-and Greg Davis underscores this in Crain's: "Many of those who opposed Ms. Black are opponents of mayoral control. But I have also found opposition among people who I regard as being both generally supportive of the mayor and uneasy with his style of governing. By choosing Ms. Black, someone with no education experience, in a process that was conducted in total secrecy, the mayor pushed those people into the arms of his opponents. It will take some doing to win them back."

His time for doing so is, however, limited: "The administration also seems to have missed another crucial rule of third terms: The window for effective action is two years at the most. Barring a crisis on the order of 9/11, the mayor will become a caretaker after the coming years as the 2013 mayoral campaign gets underway. After 10 years of the Bloomberg era, mayoral contenders will all want to explain how they will turn the page.That's why next year is so crucial for the mayor and his administration."

And, as we have said, the vultures are circling because the mayor has committed an unforced error, and his support has eroded as a consequence. But Bloomberg exacerbates the situation with his typical hauteur: "Cathie Black may have to share parts of her new job but Mayor Bloomberg says there will be no confusion about who’s the boss, he said. “There will be one person in charge. Make no mistake about that,” Bloomberg said this morning at a press conference in Brooklyn."

That person is, in our view, really Mike himself-but it will be Black in the public eye, and her inexperience will become a lightening rod when the first crisis hits-as it most certainly will, given the fact that the Klein regime was no Valhalla. The Times outlines some of this in its editorial today: "The change of leadership could not have come at a more sensitive time for the nation’s largest public school system. New policies promulgated by the State Board of Regents earlier this year will require schools all over the state to retool in several different areas at once. Most crucially, they will need to redesign curriculum to conform to rigorous standards developed by the National Governors Association along with state superintendents and embraced by the regents as part of New York State’s application for the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitive grant program."

Critics will almost certainly have the long knives out for Black-who will be skewered for the shortcomings of her predecessor as well as her own.  And probably the most sensitive area in this regard is the failure of the Kleinberg regime to narrow the racial achievement gap-in spite of all the yeoman efforts of Al Sharpton in this area. Given Black's class background, this is one issue that bears close scrutiny-and how she approaches this will speak volumes.

In the end, the mayor has weakened his rule, and opened himself up for an attack that would have been avoidable if he hadn't been so arrogant. This could signal the beginning of the end of his unchallenged hegemony. Mike Lupica goes to the heart of this-and we'll give him the last word:

"Is she the one to figure out the growing problem of scores going down as tests get harder? Is Cathie Black - with a Bloomberg-appointed guardian, Shael Polakow-Suransky, at her side - the person to solve the problem of test scores that are likely to fall again this year because passing grades will be raised? Is she really the best choice in town to run a constituency of children as large as the population of Dallas? No one has any idea. Starting with the mayor of New York. You could follow this story from Dallas and see Black as an arbitrary choice, whether you like the way this mayor operates or not. "We can't solve all the problems in the world," Mario Cuomo said once, "we just have to manage them." But good managers don't go out of their way to create problems. It is exactly what Bloomberg has done with his new schools chancellor. He acts like he's lucky the Mets didn't beat him to her.